Interview with Stacy Schiff, Author of The Witches
Stacy Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer whose latest book, The Witches, examines the many mysteries and misconceptions about the Salem Witch Trials. I caught up with Stacy at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to learn a bit more about the challenges and surprises she encountered during the four-and-a-half-year process of compiling and […]
Stacy Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer whose latest book, The Witches, examines the many mysteries and misconceptions about the Salem Witch Trials. I caught up with Stacy at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to learn a bit more about the challenges and surprises she encountered during the four-and-a-half-year process of compiling and chronicling historical data in her quest to illuminate New England’s darkest hour.
What drew you to the Salem witch trials?
So many things. It’s this spectacularly strange moment, so we go back to it over and over, but we tend to go back to it with a lot of misconceptions. So it’s sort of a touchstone. Everybody knows the Salem witch trials, but no one seems to know much about them, or what we know we’ve taken from Arthur Miller. So we have this rather vague idea that we burned witches, and it was men accusing women. Nobody knows there were male victims, a minister hangs, or that it all takes place over nine months. The basics of the story have been misshapen over the years.
It’s a fascinating moment in that it’s so not what we think about America. Here we are in this idyllic Bible commonwealth, and we don’t think about ours as the kind of country where we persecute innocents. And then you have the whole female angle. After Cleopatra, I was looking for something where women’s voices play a lead role, where women are somehow the driving force behind the narrative.
What were the young women whose accusations fueled the witch trials experiencing?
Some of them were expressing legitimate pain. Yes, people think these were just bratty adolescents, but those first afflicted girls were trying to express something they couldn’t put into words. So you have very piercing, articulate women’s voices here, but then you have a suffocating sense of something that can’t be spoken, that we can’t actually decipher, but is very powerful.
What was your biggest challenge when approaching this project?
There’s so many answers to that, but there were three hurdles that come immediately to mind.
One is that you don’t have the girls’ voices; no Puritan girl leaves a diary. And that’s one of several holes in the record. Documentation-wise, 1692 has gone missing in so many ways. It’s missing from sermons. It’s missing from collections of letters. It’s missing from diaries. We don’t have the court papers. There’s this complete lacuna at the center of the story.
Another problem is that narratively you can’t write about every one of the people who was a victim, because it’s already a huge cast of characters. So you have to pick and choose who you are going to write about. And it took some time for me to realize that the ones you write about are the ones who carry the story forward.
The third thing is you have to make something that’s crazy seem sane. Narratively, that means you have to buy into this completely hallucinated event. So when people say they’ve flown through the air, somehow you have to actually believe them.
How do you start the process of writing a book like The Witches?
I tend to immerse myself completely. I’ve read more of the secondary literature of this case than I have in other cases. I read anything that anyone wrote in the 17th century, although I didn’t read every 17th-century sermon, because you can’t. I read every diary, I read all the court papers that you can get your hands on from Essex County. And then once you begin to get a sense of the stresses and the climate, you can begin to see where the story’s going. There was a narrative high-wire act where I would realize, “Oh, wait, everyone’s accusing everyone else of witchcraft, so I guess I need to explain what a witch is.” Because, of course, the reader’s thinking witch — pointy hat, Margaret Hamilton — but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about someone in league with the devil.
There was a conscious act of not wanting to deliver answers too early. So unlike any other book I’ve written, there was a need to have things come later, because otherwise I would have risked tipping my hand too early. I wanted it to read like a thriller where you sort of get it before it’s over.
As you were researching the witch trials, what surprised you the most?
So many things surprised me. I didn’t know anything about the political context, which played such a huge role here. The parallels between this Anglican invasion of Red Coats and this diabolical invasion of red-pen-toting devils. It’s such a similar set of images. I was surprised by how a simple case of witchcraft blossomed into this huge, political conspiracy to subvert the state.
I’m surprised by who the heroes are. It’s not who you think it’s going to be.
I’m surprised by the return to normalcy. How do you go back living next to the daughter who accused you or listening to the minister who accused you?
And I was surprised by the modern resonances. We don’t explain the world in the same way, but we do experience the same anxieties that these people were suffering from. We just explain it differently. As much as these people were living in a very different world from ours, what irritates them and what unsettles them isn’t all that different from what unsettles us.
Learn more about Stacy Schiff.
Yankee Magazine is a proud sponsor of “Writers on a New England Stage” at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.